Metta Makes the First Move
Welcome to another Living Metta experiment, taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world.
Regular readers may remember the Lily Pad Sutra, my previous column exploring the years that I spent combining meditation practice and location independence as the Dharma taught me to move on and let go in 101 different ways with 50 or so moves. So imagine my surprise when it offered me the opportunity to help hundreds of university students move into their accommodation over a fortnight this September. What began as a seemingly straightforward task of welcoming strangers from around the world, checking them in, and portering their luggage from A to B unexpectedly moved me 101 new ways as I witnessed metta fill empty nests of all kinds.
On my first day on the job, I shadowed two co-workers who already had been helping for a few days and thus were familiar with the layouts of six different buildings, the best ways to load luggage onto trolleys, and what information to give students about their new accommodation and the surrounding area—such as how the heating and door key fobs worked, where best to buy groceries, how to apply for a gym membership, how the laundry worked, where to store bicycles, and how to report maintenance problems.
Many on the team were already feeling a bit jaded by the amount of “stuff” we were expected to shift: several students simply landed with carry-on, a few came with what could fit in the boot of a car, and some arrived with a whole convoy of vehicles! I overheard some interesting observations about materialism (depending on their nationalities), comparisons to how much the workers had brought with them once-upon-a-time as students (depending on their generation), and what would happen in their own homes once they or their children were ready to fly the nest (depending on their age).
Along with loading actual luggage onto trolleys, we helpers were also at the receiving end of some weird and wonderful “baggage” from both students and their families. Some parents bought groceries for the end of days (e.g. enough food to last at least three months as if Liverpool had no shops), while younger siblings often threw tantrums en route to the room. Some families were exhausted from flying from the other side of the planet, while others were frazzled from facing local traffic. Some parents hinted to their children that it wasn’t too late to change their minds as the comforts of home had so much more to offer, while other parents joked they were changing the locks as soon as they got home.
The Dharma often speaks to me through music, and Annie Lennox’s Little Bird started building itself a nest in my mind that morning:
But Mamma I feel so low
Mamma where do I go?
Mamma what do I know?
Mamma we reap what we sow
They always said that you knew best
but this little bird's fallen out of that nest now
The Dharma also often speaks to me in seemingly unrelated advice from one source that can be applied elsewhere. Recently, a bar manager at one of the football stadium hospitality lounges I also work at shared his secret to a good shift while demonstrating the correct way to uncork and serve champagne:
Keep moving, keep smiling, and keep helping wherever you can.
As the day wore on, I felt both confident enough to start showing new arrivals to their room myself and a little overwhelmed by all the (expressed and unexpressed) stress I was sensing all around me. Perhaps it was time to uncork and serve some metta to help the next fortnight flow more smoothly for all involved?
Minutes before I was due to clock off on the first day, two lost-looking people dressed to the nines appeared outside the reception area. I felt moved to ask them if I could help, and it turned out they were in town to visit the theatre later that evening but would also be helping their son move in later that week. The mother sheepishly admitted she was feeling more nervous than anyone in their family about the change and was hoping having an actual look before the big day might help settle her nerves. I smiled at both her and the Dharma for giving me such an immediate chance to test run the impressions-of-the-day coming home to roost in my own head and heart.
I gave them a tour of the normally buzzing complex, which was now in after-hours stillness, answered questions about the best laundry detergent to use in the industrial machines and where care packages would be stored securely with new understanding that the real questions I was being asked were: “Have we taught him enough so he can stand on his own two feet? Will the world be good to him? Will he still need us after next week?”
The secret to filling champagne flutes without overflow is “charging” them: this means filling a glass with about a centimetre of liquid at an angle, righting it, and letting it settle for a moment before continuing to fill it. And so I gently suggested that rather than attempting to make the move in one fell swoop, perhaps they would prefer to drop things off a little-at-a-time as a twenty-strong welcome team was available to help from 8am to midnight every day until the start of the semester. The mother’s shoulders visibly relaxed, her eyes welled up, and she nodded slowly biting her bottom lip.
The next time I saw her was in passing later that week amidst the daytime check-in chaos: this time, she was dressed down in workout clothes, happily pulling a rolling suitcase, and giving me a thumbs-up from a distance. I grinned to myself at how charging mamma-bird a little metta had hatched her own self-compassion instead of letting her overwhelm overflow.
There are many different ways to open a bottle of champagne depending on the occasion, ranging from complete silence without overspill to a Formula 1 shower on the winners’ podium. The secret to a silent opening? Hold the cork still and twist the bottle. Grand Prix winners do the opposite, making sure to shake the bottle as much as possible to maximise drama.
A father and son from Turkey arrived in the UK for the first time straight from the airport, travelling very light. As I showed them the room, the father explained his wife could only join them in a few days and had a better idea of household practicalities than either of them. I grinned at the silent plea in his eyes, and the paradox that sometimes moving with metta means keeping stillness for another while the Dharma twists life’s bottle. I listed the best local shops to get the basics like bedding and crockery as well as some suggestions of some fun things to do together until it was time to fly home. About an hour later, I bumped into them on my lunch break looking lost outside one of the shops I had recommended. We all had a good laugh at the coincidence, and I took nervous papa-bird by the arm and showed them what they might need until mamma-bird arrived.
A few days later, all three approached me between loading trolleys: mamma-bird gave me a big hug, and rolled her eyes while thanking me for looking her “boys” calm until she could finish feathering the new British nest!
Another secret to opening a bottle of champagne as safely as possible without losing control of the cork and taking someone’s eye out by mistake is leaving the “cage” (the metal wire securing the cork) on as you uncork the bottle.
Our team of helpers was just as diverse as the influx of students we were helping, and we managed to have some great conversations during lulls between new arrivals. A chat with a PhD student studying life on Mars and the science behind colonising it tickled my meditator’s imagination: how would our welcome team tackle THAT zero-gravity challenge?
The last secret I’ll share to serving champagne correctly is only filling flutes three fifths full to just that little bit more than the glass half empty/half full mark.
One of my co-workers was a Muslim Somali mother of six who had just graduated with a Masters degree in public health. We had worked together back in January as exam invigilators (described in Metta, Tried and Tested), so it was lovely to actually be able to speak this time. None of her children are currently old enough to fly the family nest yet, and I marvelled at the patience it must take her to find a work-study-life balance. She laughed and said she had admired my patience with rattled students during our exam invigilation work.
We swapped stories of the gamut of family dramas we had witnessed, and what Buddhism and Islam had taught us respectively about materialism. Attitudes to “stuff” clearly played a bigger role than most realise in terms of both physical and mental health: more isn’t necessarily better. I gave her copies of David Michie’s The Dalai Lama’s Cat (a humorous introduction to Buddhism) and James Wallman’s book Stuffocation (exploring modern materialism); she reciprocated with a link for Nouman Ali Kahn’s excellent online khutbah (Islamic sermon) on the Quran and materialism.
At one point, she jokingly warned me not to look up at the thirteen storeys of the buildings we were helping fill. Seeing my puzzlement at her comment, she shared she had just spotted a student who had been super nonchalant with her parents down on the ground now standing alone by a window with tears streaming down her cheeks.
So, my fellow would-be metta scientists, this month I’ll gently nudge you to the edge of whatever nest may be emptying in your own life with the change of seasons and ask you to wait for an airstream of self-compassion to carry you and celebrate your new freedom.
Or, to metta-morphose the rest of Annie Lennox’s Little Bird:
This little bird's fallen out of that nest now
I've got a feeling that it might have been blessed so
I've just got to put these wings to test